If this is a children’s game, there are some tough children out there.
After moving into their Aunt Lucinda’s mansion, the Grace children – Simon, Jared, and their sister Mallory – discover a journal belonging to their grandfather. The book is a Field Guide to the Faerie world, allowing them to see creatures that they otherwise couldn’t (and shouldn’t) detect. The Faeries don’t want to be found and will do anything to get the book back. Thus begins the video game adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles, a popular series of children’s books. While its DS incarnation combines an entertaining battle system with an engaging control scheme, its high level of difficulty and idiosyncratic design make it a frustrating endeavor.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a role-playing game at heart. The top screen displays your character’s health, while the touch screen shows your characters and their surrounding territory from a top-down perspective. Monsters roam around the environment as well, and they attack on sight; by the same token, monsters can also be evaded by staying far enough away that they can’t detect you. The scene then switches to a traditional side-view turn-based battle, and when the battle is won, you’re back to the map. The overall design is reminiscent of the classic Chrono Trigger, so experienced gamers should grasp the basics pretty quickly.
The battle system is also similar to many well-established RPGs. Your party changes in size during the adventure (for some reason, Mallory has a nasty habit of getting kidnapped), but you’ll always square off against enemies in turn-based combat. You can perform a melee attack, execute a super attack, cast magic, use an item, or guard. The stylus is especially useful during battle, allowing you to attack enemies by simply tapping them. You can score extra damage by completing quick mini-games before each attack; these include drawing a circle, tapping three X’s in the order that they appear, and tracing the line of a sword across the screen. You can also block attacks by tapping characters as they’re hit, a crucial skill when your party is on the ropes. A successful block can be the difference between getting hit for one point of damage or eight points of damage, often determining whether or not a character gets knocked unconscious. The tight integration of stylus control into the combat system really keeps you on your toes, making each battle a fast-paced and engaging experience.
But combat can also be frustrating. You are often greatly outnumbered; even early in the game, you’ll engage in three-on-seven battles fairly regularly, and enemies ruthlessly attack your best character. You’ll too often face a situation in which your weakened party is unavoidably jumped by a large group of monsters, and all you can do is watch helplessly as your characters are systematically picked off one by one. It’s also difficult to see how much health your enemies have left, since it’s displayed as a health bar instead of a number. Dealing with these issues battle after battle makes Spiderwick Chronicles the kind of title you’ll periodically have to take a break from out of sheer annoyance.
The stylus is used for general control as well as combat (you can use the D-Pad and buttons, but the stylus is your best choice). Much like the control scheme used in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, you move your character by dragging the stylus around the touch screen. You can shake items out of bushes by rubbing them and grab wayward sprites out of the air by tapping them. While there are definite flaws – the game sometimes has a hard time detecting when you’re walking versus trying to rub an object, and it can be difficult to walk your character off the side of the screen – stylus control is well-integrated and generally fun to use. The DS microphone is also employed; certain sprites hide in sunbeams, requiring you to "blow" them out into the open. While this may elicit a groan from some people, it doesn’t feel gimmicky and is actually an entertaining method of finding hidden sprites.
There’s also a sprite-based character upgrade system. Each character has statistics for Health, Sprite Affinity (a.k.a. Magic), and Attack, and they can be upgraded by capturing Level-Up sprites. Players can then upgrade whichever character in their party they so desire, but the game also suggests which statistic might be best to improve by placing a star beside it. It’s a nice way of introducing younger players to the character management so prevalent in today’s hardcore RPGs.
However, The Spiderwick Chronicles is also guilty of several design oversights that might turn young gamers off to the genre altogether. First and foremost, the game is difficult - often crushingly so. Health items are few and far between, meaning that it’s sometimes easier to let a wounded party get wiped out so that you start back at your last checkpoint with full health. And yes, a checkpoint system is used, as opposed to the convenient “save anywhere” method employed in many RPGs. This means that it’s possible to wander around an area for quite a while, only to die and be forced to start all the way back at its beginning. There aren’t any level maps either, meaning that even veteran players will find their patience tested.
Graphically, Spiderwick sports a hand-drawn "vintage storybook" look that suits the game’s theme quite well. In-game graphics effectively blend 3D environment objects with 2D character sprites, but while each level is fairly detailed, the generally bland color palettes prevent them from popping off the screen. The music steals the show here, with a varied soundtrack featuring several haunting refrains that provide a perfect accompaniment to the game’s mystical feel.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While its children’s book license and wealth of tutorials clearly mark it as a game intended for younger players, its frustratingly difficult battles, annoying checkpoint system, and lack of level mapping make it a tough nut for even experienced gamers to crack. Ultimately, it cannot be recommended, unless you’re a fan of the series looking for a challenge often bordering on maddening.